Sunday, August 28, 2011

"On Truth and Lie in the Study of Christian Morality"

In the realm of the more empirical sciences, the last few centuries have seen Christianity in full-scale retreat. A whole host of what used to be fundamental claims have had to be thrown overboard by Christians themselves in order to keep their religion from being discredited completely- it has the feel of the work of Civil War era “sawbones” frantically lopping off entire limbs in order to avoid infection spreading to the core of the body.

Evolutionary biology, physics and cosmology have utterly destroyed the original biblical account of creation, forcing all but the most irrational believers (ahem...Ken Ham...) to recast the cosmological claims of the bible as metaphor. History and archeology have gradually undermined the claims of the Hebrew kingdom periods and have left the accounts of Jesus's life and supposed miracles in almost total doubt. Indeed, even the “mythicist” case arguing that there was no historical Jesus at all has been gaining ground in the last decade on the strength of re-analysis of historical evidence, going from an affectation of atheist cranks to a fairly strongly argued hypothesis (though I'm still not sold!).

The tools of sophisticated theology?

In those areas, then, where facts are continually accumulating and theories thus have at least some pressure towards improvement due to contact with those facts, we find the old “models” drawn from the Bible are losing out quickly and decisively. The claims in the bible simply don't match what we find when we examine the world around us.

However, this isn't nearly as much the case in the more abstract arenas of philosophy and ethical inquiry, at least until recently. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it's much easier to play games of language and rhetoric in these less empirically-bounded disciplines, combined with the fact that the insights of psychology and cognitive science (two currents that might help to keep the philosophical reveries from drifting into confusion) are both fairly new and extremely contentious.

Whatever the cause may be, the fact that William Lane Craig, an apologist for genocide and divine-command ethics, can stand in front of any audience and claim that only God can provide an “objective” moral standard without being laughed from the stage illustrates the point perfectly. I recommend reading the links in that previous sentence, and then comparing him with his argument that starts around 7:11 in this clip:

Simply unbelievable: an intelligent philosopher can argue that slaughtering defenseless women and children and taking young girls as rape-slaves is moral when God commands it in the OT, and then turn around and in front of a packed auditorium claim that there would be no way to know that rape was “really wrong” without God's injunction against it. I haven't seen as convincing a portrayal of split-personality disorder since Fight Club.

The entire debate with Austin Dacey is worth a watch. Craig fires his usual volley, presenting his “5 reasons” as if they made an interlocking case while trying to hide the many assumptions he slips in to paper over the gaps. Though Dacey can be a bit sleep-inducing, he makes some excellent points in his opening- points that Craig's rebuttal can barely touch. Of course, as usual, Craig's flow and clarity (as well as cute little tricks like not-quite-honest summaries of his opponent's positions!) makes him seem like the clear winner, especially to a casual viewer. No wonder Luke Muehlhauser over at Commonsenseatheism called Craig a “jedi master” debater (though one commenter mentioned that he's more of a Sith Lord!).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Monty Mole Apologetics

Below is a short exchange I had with a Christian last week online- edited to remove identifying info for "Chris" the Christian, etc. It's a nice example of the back and forth hopping that happens when you confront most believers about their claims- as you can see Chris enters very strongly on faith but when the absolute silliness of pure subjectivism is pointed out tries to pivot to evidence. By the end there is essentially an admission that the evidence doesn't matter after all, anyway- it's back to subjective feelings as a backup.

I've been in much longer discussions with believers where they make this back and forth between faith and evidence many, many times as you refute them on particulars. Ever play that old arcade game Whack-A-Mole?

Chris: My thoughts: One knows that "God is truth" through the veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) experience of the Holy Spirit. Such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and know with confidence that he or she is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such an experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God Himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths such as "God exists;" that such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him or her who attends fully to it.

Yamazaru: Chris, I appreciate the clear way you laid out the argument but I think there are problems with it you might not see. Mormons think they subjectively feel God confirming the specific truth of Mormonism, Buddhists feel the same, as do adherents of almost every conflicting religious tradition. To say that subjective feelings can objectively confirm the truth of some fact about the way the world is opens a lot of really bad possibilities- I'm sure many SS officers felt a clear and powerful confirmation that Aryans were the flower of humanity and lesser peoples needed to be exterminated. If you think subjective feelings are ALL that is needed to confirm objective truth there's really no way you can argue against them!!

Chris: Hi Yamazaru. But, unlike Nazis and SS officers, I can show that my belief is true by presenting good arguments for its central

Yamazaru: Chris, the whole point of your longer post was that you don't need good arguments for the truth other than the subjective experiencing of the Holy Spirit. You said "such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and know with confidence" and "such an experience provides one not only with a subjective assurance of truth, but with objective knowledge of that truth; and that arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him or her who attends fully to it."

This could be said, more or less verbatim, by a Hindu fundamentalist in order to justify his killing of Muslims (to take one of infinite examples). So now you say you need extra evidence or arguments over and above this subjective feeling?? I agree, but that wasn't your earlier position.

Chris: Whoops, hit "send too soon". I meant to write that, by presenting good arguments, I can show my belief to be true; I don't need a subjective experience. While I do not think a person of faith needs to justify their faith to anybody--believer or not--I do think a person of faith ought to be able to explain and defend their belief. There are a number of philosophical arguments for the existence of God (Ontological, Moral, Leibnizian Cosmological, Kalam Cosmological, teleological), as well as scientific arguments such as the Standard Model (the "Big Bang") and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. My point in all this is that, were you to "confront" me, I would hardly cower and cry "faith".

Chris: Although arguments and evidence may be used to support the believer's faith, they are never properly the basis of that faith. For the believer, God is not the conclusion of a syllogism; he is the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob dwelling within him/her. How then does the believer know that his/her belief is true? Because of the self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit who lives within him. But how does one show this to be true? That's where, I think, supplemental arguments and evidence come in. I understand your point about people of other faiths, and if you want to talk specifics, you can email me. Anyway, great convo! Take care and good night.

Yamazaru: Chris, the idea that you could know truth only due to your subjective feeling of the “self-authenticating witness of God's Spirit” and evidence is only a useful tool to “show others” is problematic. You specifically said that “arguments and evidence incompatible with that truth are overwhelmed by the experience of the Holy Spirit for him or her who attends fully to it”- so what good can any outside evidence ever do? How can anyone ever come to agreement to prove anything to anyone if one's subjective feeling can “overwhelm” all incompatible evidence? Again, that way lies nightmares- there's no way you could ever argue against any horrible violation of human rights since those committing the acts can simply cite their own “overwhelming” subjective experience that tells them that they're correct.

Of course, two posts back it seemed you were ready to drop this untenable argument, talking about all the outside evidence for your beliefs. If that were really the case, I think you'd have to confront the fact that the cosmological argument, design arguments, etc have all been very effectively refuted by philosophers and scientists. I would start with this simple video on the Kalaam argument (certainly the most “sophisticated” version of cosmological argument).

Unfortunately the Big Bang and thermodynamics don't provide any evidence at all that a supernatural being exists- check the work of Victor Stenger and/or Richard Carrier among countless others. More importantly, NONE of these very abstract philosophical arguments can prove any of the specifics of Christianity or any other religious tradition; at the very best, if they worked (which they do not) they would prove some completely unknowable “creator” who need not be sentient or even still exist. There's no way to get from here to there, so to speak. If that makes you think that perhaps the specific religious texts of the Bible can help here, the situation is just as bad- see the recent work of Bart Ehrman or Hector Avalos on how contradictory, unreliable and mistaken the Bible has been shown to be as a historical document.

So either evidence is needed to get to objective truth, or it's not. If not, welcome to complete relativism and nihilism. If it is needed, then every religion so far fails this "outsider test for faith."

Anyway, thanks for a civil and fun discussion, as you can see I love chatting about these things!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Answers in Peter Gabriel

A “hip” new video has been released by the fine creationist folks over at Answers in Genesis. It's a pretty lame piece, using breakneck pacing and repetition to try and hammer a few simple untruths into the viewer. The usual set of timeworn objections to evolution are trotted out, reworded so as to seem fresh: there is no known, observable process that adds new information to an organism's genetic code, and life has never been seen to arise from non-life. AiG thinks these claims are deadly attack dogs that will leave evolution in tatters, but they're closer to being a pair of toothless old chihuahuas barely able to drag themselves across the linoleum - PZ Myers euthanizes them here. But one thing that I think is important to note is the tightly bound, almost positivist model of science that AiG slips into the video. Check out the 00:35-00:47 mark:

Here they say evolution is “quite honestly in great opposition to science, that is, observational science, the kind of science we can test and repeat and use our five sense to understand.” It seems they've spilled quite a bit of internet ink trying to show that “operational” science and “origin” science are two different types of practice entirely. If something is not a finding of a repeatable, controlled experiment then it isn't operational science but rather this new animal, “origins” science, in which it's kosher (!) to cite a book of myths in lieu actual evidence. “Origins” science is, of course, not any science worthy of the name, and they only make breathing room for it by confining “operational” (which they also call "normal”) science to physics-style experimentation.

This comes down to yet another attempt by Christians to narrow science's definition (“experimental verification only!”), trying to securely fence it in so it can't escape to threaten Biblical truths which have already been presupposed to be true. This is a ridiculous notion that would exclude astronomy, paleontology, geology, history and the social sciences from being scientific. This same overly-narrow view of science is a problem with some positivist defenders of science, too. But it's important to realize that it's been a longtime aim of the religious to make sure that we don't take a realist view of science, one that sees it as the broad and flexible practice of using reason and evidence to investigate external reality.

After all, if we admit that, then the claim that a man came back to life after being executed in first century Palestine becomes open for empirical investigation, in other words open for a scientific historical investigation...and we can guess how badly that would turn out for Christianity!